It can be hard to stand out in the solar energy field these days. Companies are adding solar capacities to everything from the clothes on your back to the paint on your wall. Yet, with all this innovation, the good old-fashioned solar panels typically seen on the roofs of homes and businesses are remarkably inefficient.

Although there is essentially a limitless amount of sunlight to be collected and turned into energy, typical photovoltaic (“PV”) solar panels that turn this energy into electricity operate at only 20 percent efficiency. This is partly due to the fact that the panels, whose job requires them to sit outside in the sun, are able to harvest less and less energy as they get hotter and hotter, creating a solar paradox: A panel must be in the sun to turn sunlight into usable energy but the longer it is exposed, the less it is able to convert. Thermal panels, which provide heat and not electricity, are also efficiency-challenged.

An innovative British company founded in 2009, Naked Energy Ltd., has announced a solution. And don’t let the sexy name – or the debonair CEO – fool you; its assets are more than skin deep. In Virtu (pronounced “virtue”), its signature product, Naked Energy has found a way to utilize solar energy to generate both electricity and heat, with an efficiency that is up to 95 percent higher than current models. Using vacuum tubes filled with PV collectors instead of flat panels, Virtu does the job of both PV and thermal panels, so that what used to require two different panels is now done by one product. In addition to producing electricity, Virtu draws the heat away from the solar panel and outputs the energy as heat or cooling, not only upping the efficiency rate but also lowering installation costs for users because they only need one piece of equipment instead of two.

Virtu Naked EnergyInstallation costs, combined with maintenance and the price of the panels themselves, can be a major deterrent for would-be solar energy users; something Naked Energy hopes to remedy. Up-front bills for standard solar panels can easily total more than $10,000, scaring away potential customers who don’t want, or can’t afford to wait 10-20 years to recoup their initial investment. How long it will take a customer to offset those initial payments varies dramatically depending on the type and size of the building, climate and access to sunlight, government subsidies, etc. With Virtu, Naked Energy CEO Christophe Williams estimates that it would take only five years to see a return on the initial investment for a typical U.K. commercial building and seven years for a residential structure.

So when will Virtu be for sale? Ever since Imperial College London announced that Virtu is 47-95+ percent more efficient than standard solar products, this has, unsurprisingly, been a regular question for Williams. The good news: With Naked Energy currently taking orders for its pilot projects, if your company is the right fit, the answer might be now. Talks have already begun with a handful of potential partners to install, use and test the product, including enterprises from Asia and Latin America. The bad news: Though Williams eventually hopes to sell Virtu to the “man on the street,” right now they’re focusing their development on the commercial sector.

Naked Energy’s success comes from combining Williams’ commercial and clean tech experience with Technical Director Richard Boyle’s visionary technological designs. After spending the first year as a self-funded venture, the company went on to win the Shell Springboard contest in February 2011, bringing in £40,000 (about $63,000), for its breakthrough technology. Most recently, as part of the Clean and Cool Mission 2012, Naked Energy was selected as one of the UK’s 16 most promising clean tech companies to come to San Francisco. In the city Williams refers to as his industry’s “Mecca,” Naked Energy showcased their technology, met potential customers and suppliers, and hobnobbed with deep-pocketed investors. They appreciated the welcoming reception. Compared to the Bay Area, in Britain solar “is not commonly accepted because it’s not sunny,” according to Williams.

Yet unlike many American solar entrepreneurs, Williams isn’t overly concerned about the impact of one of the U.S.’s most controversial variables in the solar industry: China. Last month, the U.S. government slapped tariffs on all solar panels imported from China following a Commerce Department finding that the manufacturers had “dumped” the goods below fair-market value thanks to subsidies from their own government. The tension between the countries on this issue has been escalating as the Obama administration tries to support American solar entrepreneurs without inadvertently making access to solar technology more expensive. But Williams seemed unfazed by China’s cheap solar products, noting that Virtu is a “premium product” aimed at a “different market.” He also mentioned that China’s products have yet to “stand the test of time” – by the time Virtu is available on the public market, the quality of the Chinese panels may be outed as reflective of their price.

Though Virtu is currently the company’s only product, don’t expect Naked Energy to stop innovating once it’s fully developed, marketed and sold internationally. Williams, a longtime clean energy enthusiast, has high hopes for the future of the company and the global impact he expects it to make. Asked where he sees the company in the next ten to fifteen years, Williams had no shortage of lofty aspirations. Not only does he hope to bring Naked Energy to developing countries’ “disconnected villages and towns” and other remote areas, to provide desalination and other clean energy technology, he also hopes to deploy the company’s technology to high-end commercial clients, like Apple. Apple’s recently announced plans for a new data center in Maiden, North Carolina, entirely powered with renewable energy sounds like a perfect fit for the company, according to Williams. Of course that begs the question: Is Maiden ready for some Naked Energy?

Photo credits: Naked Energy